Using Great Storytelling To Grow Your Business

Every two months, I pull together a community of innovators. We meet somewhere in New York City, usually a boardroom overlooking a park or cityscape. But last month we all found our way into an acting studio operated by The TAI Group to learn about storytelling.

The members of this group certainly already know something about the topic. They are senior executives at some of the largest corporations, partners in some of the most prestigious consulting and private equity firms, and several cutting-edge entrepreneurs. But the more you know, the more you realize there is to learn, and this group wanted to learn more about how to use effective storytelling to drive change in and grow their organizations.

The experience shocked me, to be honest. I considered myself an expert and snobbishly thought there was little more to learn. How wrong I was. Here are my two key takeaways from this session. Apply them today at your next meeting or phone call and I am willing to bet you will have a better result.

1) Use lots of LOTS. Our facilitator, Gary Lyons, senior coach at The TAI Group, told us a story and had us dissect what we remembered. Do this, and you will realize your audience is often checked out, comatose, or unable to hear or remember what you are saying. The key to engage them is to use lots of "language of the senses," or LOTS. When telling a story, share with us what you see, smell, feel, taste, and hear. When you trigger a sense in someone, you bring them into the story with you.

2) Build on your story spine. At McKinsey, I was taught to open presentations with a standard structure: situation, complication, question, answer. TAI suggests you use a five-step structure and do so not just to open your presentation, but throughout your talk. They call it the "story spine": reality is introduced, conflict arrives, there is a struggle, the conflict is resolved, a new reality exists. These two tools caused a profound shift in our abilities to tell effective stories.

Not convinced? Let me try the story spine with lots of LOTS then:

Reality introduced: A dark room is filled with 20 executives and entrepreneurs resting on chairs in rows facing two director chairs. The door closes, snuffing out the faint sound of New York traffic.

Conflict introduced: Our facilitator, Gary, begins scratching markers on flip charts. He is there to teach us about storytelling. But all I can think about is, "This is a highly accomplished group; they know all of this already. Will we learn anything new?"

Struggle: Gary tells us to use "language of the senses," but someone complains, "You can't talk like that at a board meeting," to which Gary points out that if you talk differently than people expect you to, they are more likely to listen and remember.

Conflict resolved: Gary gently bats back every concern this Type A group lobs at him, patiently walking us through the journey. By the end he has us on the edge of our seats.

New reality: We close with a "before and after" exercise. One of our members gets up to practice a pitch; he is raising money for an energy tech venture. He starts speaking, but I just can't follow. When he finishes, I realize I have not heard a word. Gary coaches him—lots of LOTS, story spine, look us in the eye, take us in—and the speaker tries again. Now it is all waterfalls of electricity pouring down the mountain, the opportunity to create something and break through with passion. I heard every word, and so much more.

That is the impact that two tools can have in your ability to tell stories—about the company you are building, the project you are leading, the life you live. You can enroll people more completely and emotionally in your mission. Here is how you can put it to use now: 

1) Think of a presentation or pitch you will be giving in the next seven days.

2) Write out your presentation as a story, longhand, on paper, using the story spine.

3) Brainstorm a list of LOTS (language of the senses) you want to embed into your story.

[Image: Flickr user saipal]

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  • Louis Di Bianco

    You are right on target with this post about story structure and the use of LOTS. I'm an actor and business storyteller. These principles are essential to powerful clear communication that moves people to feel and to act. An effective story "shows;" it doesn't tell.


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  • I like the expression “lots of LOTS” – lots – and I’m sure using that tip would help transport people into the story.

    Mind you, if the language presenters use gets too grand and poetic, I think people won’t be drawn in. Using LOTS works best when you’re reliving an experience through language – not just imagining some future utopia.

    As for structure, using a circular format can work well, making your talk return to your opening statement or question. I wonder how that relates to the story spine?

    For examples of how circular talks can be laid out, please see:

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  • kkcoolj

    Nice story Kaihan.  Storytelling definitely is an artform which has a long way to go before its mastery is fully shared widespread.  Do you know of the Lowery Loop framework for narrative preaching?  The inductive nature of story told in this fashion can have a very transformative effect on the audience.  Likewise, I recently spend time in an intensive workshop with Bobette Buster, who leads the cause for examining and understanding what produces epiphanies within the arc of storytelling.  Her work with the major film studios reveals that there are certain universal milestones in stories that can be integrated to enrich the audience's experience and engagement.  Lastly I recently picked up Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks, which goes about dissecting successful stories so that you can approach story telling in a more productive manner.

  • collier1960

    I'm an Architect working on my first novel. Some basic writing advice I've encountered for developing a scene; "put weather in it." That's a literal means of introducing the "language of the senses" into a story.

    The need and opportunity to employ storytelling abound beyond the printed page. I remember the LOTS technique!

  • Rob Mitchell

    There's a big leap from good storytelling (who doesn't like stories?) to facilitating a storytelling 'process' like the one described here. I've come across a lot of storytelling workshops like this and every time I've found that a) the process is ropey; and b) much more important, the end results are really hard to work with. Ironically, although they'd follow the 'rules' of a good story, they're weren't very good stories in themselves. It's as if the process has become a straitjacket that has sapped out all the things we like about stories.

    If you look at the way TAI Group writes about what they do on their 'about us' page on their website, you'll see they're not natural storytellers, 'alignment and collaboration increase in teams and across organizations'. It's cheeky of me to take their words out of context, but you get my point.

    In short, stories are good but I'm sceptical about how good processes like this are at coming up with anything you'd want to read or use. I wrote a blog post making this very point last week:

  • Jim

    How about sharing links to examples of great storytelling? Very interesting stuff. Thanks.

  • Stan Mann

    I like the idea of using as many senses as possible. Were all used to seeing and hearing and we can get into feelings. Smelling and tasting not so much. However, using taste and smell are powerful because they're not used so often. "The sweet smell of success," is memorable. "Getting a bad taste in your mouth" and "smelling a rat" are powerful because they are used so seldom.

  • Rob Biesenbach

    California Jerry Brown compared communicating with voters to theater: “[I]t’s gesture, symbol, the narrative, the
    drama. Who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist?" From TV, movies and books we're immersed in stories, setting up certain expectations in our mind for how we consume and retain information. So it's natural we respond to them and that they can be effective in business. They're essential, in fact.

  • Tom Gable

    Great thought process. As another reference, check the classic "Story," the principles of screen writing, by Robert McKee. The tips on flow and structure work for presentations and writing of all kinds, including  feature writing and even compelling PR pitches.

  • Jim Signorelli

    Great article and thanks. If we think of brands as stories, then the brand is the character moving through some obstacle to achieve a relationship with the consumer.  Thinking of the brand as the character of its own story, with capabilities, motivations and values, is a great way to think about a brand and to arrive at its overall purpose beyond  making profits.   There is so much we can learn about brands through story.

  • Mathew K

    The 'CASE' method taught at Harvard Business has the typical story telling.  Kept our case discussions interesting. I suspect the story telling methods were taught in business schools and not restricted to senior executives in large business or at McKinsey. 

  • Jon Hansen

    From the eBook A Storied Career: 40+ Story Practitioners Talk about Applied Storytelling, by Katharine Hansen Ph.D.and this radio interview author David Lee, it is clear that storytelling is an important part of both creating context and building a connection in the business world (

  • George S. McQuade III

    Everyone needs an editor, and everyone needs a reminder at all ages. Thanks for reminding me about the senses. I read something similar when Google first came out with Google word ads, when I could afford doing scores of them at 25 cents a word, remember?

    In my tingling rewrite of ads, I recall after reading an article about the senses, my click through grew like wildfire by uses those descriptions. I wrote stuff like "Media placements you can see", " NO media? Publicity that feels good @ MAYOPR" "Taste the sensation of real cookies" and so on. Thanks for sharing, good stuff, and definitely out of he box.

  • Larry Roman

    Yes! It works.. one caution, I once added a "hook" at the beginning of my story line that was so captivating that people remember the hook - not sure they heard the intended message of the story though!

  • Brade Cao

    I study and get some help. Goals are meant to be achieved. To succeed in life, think about how you can take postive actions every day to accomplish...

  • Art Fisk

    Think about how magical "...once upon a time..." was as a child.  Story is about connecting. In order to communicate, we have to connect with our audience.  Story is Brilliant!